ClitLit – Women, Romance Fiction and Patriarchal Discourse

September 25, 2010

New Voices, Fresh Beginnings?

Mills and Boon is currently running a web competition called New Voices, searching for – surprise, surprise – new voices, new romance writers. Entries have closed and they received a huge amount – I’m not sure of the exact number, but it was over 800. When one considers the very small percentage of readers that actually write (I have absolutely no stats to back this up, only the evidence of my own experiences, but there it is) this is a huge amount of entries.

Category romance gets a bad name for being formulaic, and I have to say that it’s justified a lot of the time – there’s only so many Greek shipping magnates and Mediterranean billionaires and sheikhs you can read about before they all blur into one – and so I was really very pleasantly surprised to see this coming from M&B blogger Flo Nicoll:

“Don’t be afraid to give us a story we’ve never seen before. E.g. bosses and secretaries are an old favourite for a reason, but what else can you think of to get readers hooked?”

I’ve been putting together the proposal for my doctorate during the six weeks I haven’t been writing here, and the idea of the future of the genre is one I’m currently quite intrigued with. My proposed doctorate is on the dynamics between virgin heroines and playboy heroes – the eternal sexual (in)experience interaction. In the early days of romance fiction, this dynamic was pretty much an essential requirement of the genre. Now, although the virgin/playboy thing remains popular, there are many more diverse experiences out there.

However, if the virgin/playboy thing wasn’t so overwhelmingly out there, I would have no PhD proposal. And this whole New Voices thing made me think – is this constant flood of billionaires and CEOs and their timid little secretaries making the category genre stagnant? Genres evolve by nature – they grow and change. But with category, we essentially get the same thing, over and over – rich alpha male meets socially inferior young woman. Usually, she’s ‘feisty’ (oh! how I hate that word!) but he steamrolls her into sex/marriage/a relationship/some romantic outcome. And then they declare their love and live happily ever after.

It’s more complicated than that – I could go into Pamela Regis’s eight essential elements, I suppose, but I don’t know how much merit there would be in doing that – but I think that’s the bones of it. And it is, I think, the steamrolling thing that bothers me most. Cristina Nehring had a chapter in her recent book A Vindication of Love on the romance of inequality (particularly, as I read it, teacher/student relationships, which I found interesting in the context of the sexual dynamics of the playboy and virgin, which I have discussed many a time before), but I just don’t buy it.

There’s a whole other issue at play here which I need to write about in more depth – the idea that ‘alpha’ does not mean the same thing as ‘arsehole’. ‘Alpha’ is so often used as a catchall term to excuse any terrible (sometimes basically emotionally abusive) actions of the hero – ‘oh, he’s just being alpha’. Tied into this alphaness seems to be the need to dominate everyone, including (and sometimes especially) the heroine. And this gets played out with those Mediterranean CEOs and whatnot again and again and again and again. And even more agains.

Which is why I think this New Voices thing is such a good idea. In one sense, I think it’s pushing the genre forward. I’ve scanned through a lot of the entries, and while there are a whole lot of the steamroller heroes, there are some that more mellow. More chilled. More… you know, not arseholes. Throwing the genre open to change and evolution can only be a good thing, I think. I mean, people obviously love the steamroller stuff, because they buy it and buy it again and again… but why should it be the only thing available to buy?

So what I mean to say is, in a very long winded way, I think the rationale behind this competition is great. If it can breathe fresh air into the genre and push it forward… I think it can be nothing but great.

(And yes, I did enter. I’m willing to try my hand at writing anything – and it’s only fair that I walk my own talk. You can read my entry here, if you are at all interested.)

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April 21, 2010

Anxious Alphole Masculinity – Quick Shots

Apologies for the length of time between posts here – I have this whole real life which often interferes with my academic writing. (And, indeed, other interests in academic writing – Thomas Middleton, for one; Georgian theatre, for another).

But enough of that – I have some more Simone de Beauvoir that I want to ponder. Specifically, this quote:

“No one is more arrogant toward women, more aggressive or scornful, than the man who is anxious about his virility.”

This is a really interesting point, and one that I hadn’t thought of, to tell the truth. There is a real trend among the “alphole” hero – the Dante from The Italian Boss’s Mistress of Revenge, for example – to assert his sexuality in a very active way that really makes me recoil, because it is practically rape. He then treats the woman terribly and she, for some reason, gets off on it.

I’m usually – and still am – very concerned about the woman in this situation, because hello, sexual assault, and this is not cool. You can wave the ‘it’s pretend’ flag all day long, when you encode someone with such behaviours as ‘heroic’ in fiction with such an intense moral hierarchy (the good get what they want, the bad suffer) as romance fiction, then there’s a problem. But problematic as this is, this is not today’s point.

To what extent is this (repellent) alphole hero emasculated by the heroine in romance fiction? His sexual desire for her is very different to the desire he has felt for any other woman – she ends up converting him to solid monogamy, case in point, when he has generally been sleeping with anything that moves beforehand. To what extent does he treat her terribly because of his anxious masculinity, because he is afraid he is no longer virile because he no longer to desire to do anyone, any time?

I would contend that an alphole is just an arsehole, end of story. But I am not a romance author, and so I don’t know if any romance authors really think about endowing their heroes with this kind of anxious masculinity. It is an interesting way of humanising the alphole… but I also find it a problematic way of excusing him.

January 13, 2010

Karma and ‘Goodness’: Sex as a reward

I’ve spent a lot of the last week on a plane – crossing the Australian continent twice in three days, which is no mean feat, let me tell you! – and have passed the time very merrily by reading some more of Jenny Crusie’s books: Fast Women and Welcome to Temptation, to be specific. (And, being on a plane, I haven’t been writing here, as you can tell…) They were both excellent plane books – I loved Welcome to Temptation in particular. I’m definitely going to have to read more Crusie, perhaps even purely for pleasure rather than study. She’s so wonderfully… well, readable. And moreish.

Though the point I made about Tell Me Lies still stands – I’m still not entirely sure she’s ‘romance’ in the most traditional sense. I’m definitely going to have to track down some of her category stuff to see how she deals with that more restricted format – I’m yet to read a category that blows my mind, and I figure if anyone can do it, Crusie can. Welcome to Temptation was more about the town of Temptation than anything else, although Sophie and Phin’s relationship is obviously a major factor. Family is a huge thing – Sophie’s relationships with Amy and Davy, Phin’s troubled Tucker legacy and his struggle to escape from it… and then there’s the whole Rachel subplot, and who-killed-Zane – it’s so much more than your typical romance usually is, and I think why I like it so much. Without the cover, I’d probably call it chicklit, though it’s not exactly a perfect fit there either… it’s light reading, plain and simple. I don’t know if you can call it a genre, but that’s what it is.

But this genre talk wasn’t actually what I wanted to get into. I wrote about sex in romance novels figuring as some kind of moral currency a few weeks ago, particularly as regards the virgin heroine – she is allowed to experience excellent sex with the hero as a reward for her previous good behaviour, when talking within a frame of a patriarchal view of female sexual morality. This happens a lot in category romance – I think there’s probably at least one release in every line per month that features a playboy and a virgin. Revisiting what I talked about before, I basically said that this sexual reward, bestowed upon the heroine by the hero, allows her to become complete as an individual (though her completion is dependent upon him). In return, she supplants his existing sexuality (his playboyness) with her own model (domestically blissful monogamy), thus reforming him.

This emphatically does not happen in Crusie’s books – which is one reason I like them so much, I think. Crusie, in her essay, describes romance as:

“…fiction about women who had sex and then didn’t eat arsenic or throw themselves under trains or swim out to the embrace of the sea, women who won on their own terms (and those terms were pretty varied) and still got the guy in the end without having to apologize or explain that they were still emancipated even though they were forming permanent pair bonds…”

– Crusie, J., 1997, ‘Romancing Reality: The power of romance fiction to reinforce and re-envision the real’ [originally published in Paradoxa: Studies in World Literary Genres. Number 1-2, 1997: 81-93, accessed via http://www.jennycrusie.com/for-writers/essays/romancing-reality-the-power-of-romance-fiction-to-reinforce-and-re-vision-the-real/, 21/12/2009] 

Crusie’s heroines – Sophie, Nell, Maddie – do get to win on their own terms, which I really enjoy. There’s not a sense of them as incomplete, fragile individuals – they have their own pre-existing individuality, which is complemented by that of their respective heroes. There’s no sense that they lose their selfhood or somehow become dependent on their respective menfolk when their sexual relationships begin, either. Crusie is very good at having her heroines doing things on their own terms.

But yet there is still this concept of sex as reward, which I find interesting. In Crusie, it’s not figured as a reward for sexual morality. Instead, it’s almost an idea of it being the heroine’s turn to have a good time. Bad stuff happens to some of the heroines – Nell gets left by her husband, for example, and Maddie’s husband turns out to be a) crap and b) dead. In other cases, like Sophie’s, they’ve been putting themselves second for so long that it’s really their turn to put themselves first. There’s a real sense that these women deserve something good to happen to them – and as this is romantic fiction, that good thing happens to be excellent sex. (I find it interesting that Phin and Sophie’s sexual relationship explicitly begins as a reward for past good – for Sophie especially. This is paraphrased, but Phin actually says to her ‘let me give you an orgasm you don’t have to worry about for once’.)

Where Crusie really succeeds is making you like and identify with her heroines – I think this is why I preferred Welcome to Temptation to Fast Women, because I liked Sophie more than I liked Nell. When this happens – when you are truly engaged with a heroine and want good stuff to happen to her – the romance becomes that more effective. I’m paging my way through a category at the moment where the heroine is a single mum with a disabled son, and even though I know all this bad stuff has happened to her and now she deserves something good, she’s so friggin’ irritating that I couldn’t care less if she and the hero got it on. Crusie is excellent at creating likeable, but still flawed, heroines, who get the good things they deserve.

And where she also succeeds is not making her hero a cardboard cutout ‘good thing’. She doesn’t trot out any of the old staples – Phin Tucker, the mayor of Temptation, for example, has a whole lot of issues and things of his own. He’s being slowly crushed by the weight of his own family’s legacy, when all he wants to do is play pool and hang out with his nine year old daughter Dillie. He deserves Sophie as much as Sophie deserves him, which is why this novel works so well. And their relationship is not one of co-dependency, either, which is something I really appreciated. They are strengthened by their union, inspired by one another, but they don’t become a unit. Phin and Sophie remain Phin and Sophie – they don’t become Phin-and-Sophie. They fight plenty after they get together and retain fierce senses of their own individuality. Their familial bonds are both very important to them. There’s no throwing off everything and riding off into a happily ever after with no fights ever in a land where it rains sugarplums and the roads are rainbows. They are each other’s reward, but they don’t become indistinguishable.

So… I think what we have is karma in romance. In my opinion, the reason romance fiction is so popular is not because of the sex (the ‘female porn’ concept) but because it’s a world where good things happen to good people, which is very comforting. What is really interesting, though, is the definition of ‘good’. In novels like Crusie’s, which are quality, ‘good’ is figured as ‘likeable’. In others, however, it is figured as sexual morality. The former (Crusie-style) is totally fine by me. It might not be the most highly realistic form of fiction, but hey, I doubt anyone comes to romance looking for gritty realism. The latter, however, is tied up and twisted with all kinds of patriarchal assumptions of female sexuality and double standards which can be totally sickening… even though the virgin heroine’s reform of the hero is a subversion of patriarchal ideals.

NB: Just as I was off in Perth and Brisbane last week, I’m going to be in Sydney and Melbourne next week (indulging one of other writing loves – writing about tennis) so it’s going to be a little light-on here for a while. But I’ll be back. 🙂

January 5, 2010

Your Heroine Is Not Your Barbie – Quick Shots

I’m slogging my way through Pride and Pregnancy and I made it a whole two paragraphs further before I found something that completely rubbed me up the wrong way. I hate, hate, HATE when people insist on describing their character’s clothes in unnecessary detail. I realise this has nothing to do with the Proper Grown Up Academic Study of Romance Novels ™ but it drives me absolutely NUTS.

So you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to read the first chapter, and every time the author makes an unnecessary note of some facet of a character’s clothing, I’m going to write it down. Because I have a feeling this is going to be one of those books and THIS TREND MUST STOP.

– gardening gloves, covering press-on nails (p.8)

– beaded slides (p.8)

– eighties retro hair (p.11)

– stretchy pants (p.11)

– “the top rode high” (p.11)

– “the bellybutton sparkled like the North Star” (p.11)

– “a delicate gold chain hugged her ankle” (p.12)

– “assortment of fake gemstone rings” (p.12)

– “tugging a straw coloured hair out of her lipstick” (p.13)

– “her cheeks pinked way beyond the makeup” (p.14)

– “he also didn’t miss the lack of panty lines underneath all that soft, snuggly fabric” (p.15)

– “umbrella sized straw hat” (p.17)

– entire conversation about authenticity of Karleen’s boobs (p.19)

– not exactly clothing, but could be considered an accessory – “trusty Swiss Army knife” (p. 22)

– Templeton, K., 2007, Pride and Pregnancy [Harlequin Mills & Boon]

Obviously, there are situations when a little description is a good thing. But YOUR CHARACTERS ARE NOT YOUR BARBIES. Clothes are not the window to the soul. I really, really don’t care what they are wearing. Am I alone here? Maybe. But this is why (well, one of the many reasons) I had to stop reading those cracktastic Anita Blake books. Round about Book #8, they started degenerating into sex scenes and descriptions of what people were wearing linked together by something to do with vampires and werewolves and… was there more plot? It was dressed up so much I missed it, obscured by the trappings.

Less is more. This is a lesson I could use in all aspects of my own writing, but when it comes to clothing your characters, this really, really irritates me. If your heroine’s beaded slides are magical and will be used to save the world, tell me all about them! But don’t tell me about her umbrella-sized straw hat, unless it is the nemesis of the beaded slides and turns whoever wears it evil. And if every single article of clothing your characters are wearing are magical and vital to the plot, you know what you need to do?

Write a goddamn better book.

January 4, 2010

How Not To Introduce A Heroine – Quick Shots

I’ve just returned to the world of category romance after being blown away by Jenny Crusie. I’m two pages in, but I had to share this.

I’m reading Pride and Pregnancy, a Harlequin from 2007, picked purely by virtue of its hilarious title. It opens thusly:

“By the time she was thirty, Karleen Almquist had signed three sets of divorce papers, at which point she decided to make things easier on herself and just get a hamster.”

– Templeton, K., 2007, Pride and Pregnancy [Harlequin Mills & Boon] p.7

I thought this was a pretty good opening line. I chuckled a little, I confess. Templeton goes on to muse that ‘they [hamsters] weren’t of much use in the sack, but then the same could be said of most husbands’. I chuckled a little more.

But then we see Karleen, our heroine, burying one of her beloved hamsters in the backyard. We get a woman with a shovel scene, hamster graveyard, ra ra ra, then… this:

“Fond of Melvin [being her late hamster] as she’d been, it had taken the better part of an hour to glue on these nails and damned if she was going to ruin them for a dead hamster.” [Templeton, p.8]

Gee, Karen Templeton. Way to make your heroine totally unlikeable. Pet > nails.

I’ll keep you posted on how manicured Karleen progresses…

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